Jeff Burton to serve as grand marshal at Lebanon I-44 Speedway, while also cheering on 13-year-old son Harrison

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NBCSN’s own Jeff Burton loves short track racing – after all, that’s where he cut his racing teeth growing up in southern Virginia.

So it’s no surprise that Burton, who has long had the nickname “The Mayor of NASCAR,” has agreed to be Grand Marshal for the 2nd annual Mercy Masters of the Pro’s 144 at Lebanon I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, Mo., on May 17.

Not only will Burton fulfill his Grand Marshal duties, which includes handing over a check for $8,000 for the winner of the Pro Late Model main event, he’ll also be on hand to watch 13-year-old son Harrison compete in both the Pro Late Model and Super Late Model events that evening.

It’s pretty clear the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree: Harrison finished second in the 2014 World Series of Asphalt Racing this season during NASCAR’s Speedweeks in February at nearby New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway, earning two wins in the week’s worth of racing.

“We are very excited to compete in what has become one of the marquee pro late model events in the country and I was honored to be asked to act as Grand Marshal of the race,” Jeff Burton said in a track-issued media release.

In last year’s inaugural 1st Annual Mercy Masters of the Pro’s 144, Chase Elliott – who has literally exploded onto the NASCAR Nationwide Series scene this year with two wins already – set a new Pro Late Model track record (14.344 seconds) en route to the overall victory on the 3/8-mile high-banked surface at I-44 Speedway.

“Our 2013 event set the bar so high and we are very blessed to have a great partner like Mercy Hospitals as a partner,” Speedway general manager Kevin Greven said. “Jeff Burton, The Mayor of NASCAR, was very gracious to come in as our grand marshal and I am very excited to see his son Harrison entered in the event.”

The elder Burton is wrapping up a 20-year career in Sprint Cup this season, driving part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing as well as serving as an in-studio analyst for NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA. He’ll become part of the NASCAR on NBC race coverage broadcast team when NBC and NBCSN take over for outgoing ESPN and TNT next season.

Check out the video below of Harrison’s post-race interview after one of his wins earlier this year at New Smyrna.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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